Beating bowel cancer together

Jane Corrigan, Durham

Laura was my daughter. She was always busy. She was a marine ecologist and passionate about the environment. In her last job, for the Environment Agency, she had responsibility for several projects along the north east coast and was never happier than when out kayaking, doing field work.

She was also a very strong swimmer and loved wild swimming. She did keep fit, lots of yoga and went running. For many years she was a member of 'Shadows on the Sand', a belly dance group, performing at displays, parties and weddings. When she wasn't at work or caring for her children, she tie-dyed t-shirts and children's clothing, even bed linen, and had a successful online business. She loved helping her two nieces to tie-dye clothes. She seemed to have boundless energy.

In 2011, Laura's first child, Max, was born four weeks premature by emergency C-section as she had pre-eclampsia after eight months of hyperemesis (all day severe sickness). She had gained very little weight and Max weighed only four lbs and was undernourished.

Prior to this, on two occasions, she collapsed at work in excruciating abdominal pain. On the first occasion a colleague took her to A&E. She was put in a cubicle and observed for a few hours, then sent home. On the second occasion she asked to be taken straight home since she had received no treatment the first time.

When Max was still a baby she was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The following year she was tested for ulcerative colitis, which was negative. When she asked if she could possibly have a tumour, she was told that at 31, she was too young to have bowel cancer.

Yet her symptoms worsened. On one occasion her legs were covered in huge bruises. She had blood tests for leukemia which came back negative.

Five years after Max was born, Laura had her second child, Finn. Again she had hyperemesis and pre-eclampsia and Finn was born by emergency C-section five weeks premature.

Laura's symptoms worsened. She began to lose weight rapidly. Her consultant said she couldn't have a colonoscopy whilst breast feeding, we now know this isn't true. There was no suggestion that she needed any tests urgently. She carried on breastfeeding and eventually had a colonoscopy when Finn was nine months old.

I don't remember her consultant's name but I do remember the smirk on his face as he told her, 'I am the bearer of bad news.' I hope he was embarrassed at all the opportunities he'd missed, over five years, to diagnose her sooner. We now know hyperemesis together with other symptoms can be a sign of bowel cancer. Why did no doctor join up the dots and do a full investigation? By now Laura had lost two stone since Finn's birth. She had had symptoms for five years. The cancer was stage 4 with secondaries in both lungs. She was terminally ill!

Laura always had a positive outlook. She was determined to fight it, even though her cancer was so advanced. I now became full time carer for her and her two boys as she began grueling treatments.

Radiotherapy started almost straight away to shrink the tumour prior to surgery. It caused such extreme damage that Laura had a complete blockage of the bowel. After several days in agony we finally got her admitted to the Freeman hospital in Newcastle for emergency surgery and she had a stoma for the rest of her life. A few months later she had surgery to remove the tumour but got the devastating news that it was inoperable as it was too close to the pelvic bone.

She now had several bouts of chemotherapy with all the side effects that causes, but little success in shrinking the tumour. She had so many emergency admissions to hospital we lost count at 20. She had repeated bouts of sepsis, had a drain inserted into the buttock to drain the abscesses. The tumour caused several kidney infections and eventually was pressing on the ureters so stents had to be inserted surgically, a very uncomfortable procedure which had to be repeated every six months.

In August 2019 Laura was scheduled to take part in a clinical trial at St Mary's Paddington. She travelled down to London from Durham with her father, an arduous train journey for someone so ill. She arrived at St Mary's the next day to be told the machine to be used for the treatment had broken down. She was promised it would be repaired by September, then October, then November.

In December, scans revealed the cancer had now spread to the sacrum, the pelvic bone and several vertebrae. She had secondaries in the liver and the lung tumours were increasing. She was extremely ill. She was admitted to St Cuthbert’s Hospice in Durham for pain management where she stayed and received wonderful care for five weeks. At this stage she also needed a catheter as the tumour was preventing the bladder from draining.

Still she didn't give up. I never heard her complain. She never said, 'why me?'

At this point she said she wanted a party while she was still alive instead of a big funeral. Her marvellous friends arranged this and in February 2020 well over 100 people of all ages and from all over the UK and Ireland attended an absolutely fantastic party with live music provided by her friends 'The Emerald Thieves'. The party raised £18,000 for the hospice which had cared for her so well and even though she was very seriously ill she said she had had a wonderful time.

Laura was still optimistic she could return to St Mary's for the trial treatment but in March all clinical trials were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet still the researcher promised he would sort things out and she was top of the list. 'If it doesn't happen by June, it will be too late!', she said. Two weeks after lockdown started, Laura became paralysed as the tumour was pressing on nerves. She never walked again and her remaining weeks were incredibly difficult as we remained in total isolation seeing only nurses and carers and wonderful volunteers who brought our food and her medication.

On 1 June she was admitted to hospital with what we thought was another kidney infection. The next day she had deteriorated and I was told she was dying and, in spite of Covid, I should get her family here. The next day we brought her home and she died 11 days later surrounded by her family. Her last words were, 'look after my boys,' and 'I tried so hard...'

Two little boys have lost their mother, her parents a daughter, her siblings a sister. She has left many friends and relatives bereft and the world has lost a fine researcher who really made a difference to the marine environment. She had so much more to give and I am angry, so very angry at all the missed opportunities the doctors had to diagnose the cancer in its early stages.

But we’re leading change

Never Too Young is leading change for younger bowel cancer patients. Every year 2,500 younger people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK. Our research has shown that younger bowel cancer patients have a very different experience of diagnosis, treatment and care.

What are we calling for?

  • Improved clinical guidance and practice on bowel cancer in younger people

  • Improved identification of people with genetic conditions and access to surveillance screening

  • Improved information for younger people on bowel cancer symptoms.

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